An Italian Adventure Part 3


An Italian Adventure

Part Three – Islands of Southern Italy


May 24, 2011

Dateline: Salerno, Italy

Latitude  at Salerno 40.7 degrees  North,  Longitude 14.7  degrees East

We left Tuscany from the Camucia train station early this morning on a southbound train headed for Rome and then connected with a train to Salerno in Campania, where we decided to overnight before continuing on to Sicily. We only had 15 minutes to connect 10 tracks away. We were sprinting as we schlepped our bags up and down stairs. Once on board we had 4 hours or so to enjoy one of our rolling picnics (mostly wine, bread and cheese that we had been carrying around for the last several days).

According to Rick Steves, once you get south of Rome, everything gets more stereotypically Italian and more exaggeratedly so. We first noticed this with the abundance of gypsy and non-gypsy beggars that jump on the train and commence a brisk begging routine, with one eye toward the conductor. If he (or she) appears to be approaching they move away to the next car and, if another conductor is coming from the other way, they will hop off at the next stop.  To begin their “shtick” they hand out little pieces of paper with their personal sad stories outlined in Italian and some semblance of English (e.g. I am a poor widow caring for a family of 17 disabled children and the bambino needs milk – said bambino may or may not accompany the supplicant). Some of the more ambitious offer soft drinks and bottled water for sale, carried in a plastic bucket. The water is indeed in a bottle, which was likely recently retrieved from a trash can and filled from a local tap. We didn’t see any evidence of a conductor between Rome and Naples so it was open season on the tourists for that leg of the trip. We suspect the conductors keep a low profile on this run, and have conceded this turf to the moochers and shysters. We also noticed that while reservations are mandatory on the Eurostar trains, (versus the intercity trains which are smaller local trains) the reservations requirement is largely ignored south of Rome so there is a general musical chairs type shuffle after each stop. We saw Vesuvius on our left as we left Naples going south and it appeared to be sleeping peacefully. Of course that is probably what the people of Pompey thought back in 73 AD when it woke up in a rather dramatic fashion.

I had thought there would be some interesting sights to see in Salerno, particularly in light of this being the scene of an Allied Invasion in 1943 and the actual capital of Italy between the time Mussolini was impaled on a meat hook and the Nazis still occupied Rome.  Not only that, Salerno has been  the site of civilization since pre-Roman times. However, by the time our train pulled into the station and we took a taxi to the Hotel K (where the Tuscan Magic Travel Agency in Cortona had booked us) and checked in, dusk was setting in. We decided on a leisurely walkabout and perhaps locate a place to have dinner along the busy seaport boulevard (4 lanes full of beeping horns and darting Vespas). It proved to be an adventure, but not exactly what we had in mind. We were in a quasi industrial, working class neighborhood and the choices seemed to be a pizzeria or a darkened restaurant with lots of tables and no customers.

Pizza Delivery Bikes at the Ausonia Pizzeria

Pizza Delivery Bikes at the  Pizzeria Ausonia

The word seedy comes to mind.   In contrast, things were hopping at the Pizzeria Ausonia, so we chose it for our evening meal. There was an abundance of yelling back and forth and full-body gesticulating, but nobody was mad at anyone else –it’s just a matter of expressing oneself. We think this may be the Italian equivalent of the Bronx. We immediately discovered that no one spoke English, but our friendly waiter recruited a fellow customer,  who readily volunteered to be our translator  in exchange for hearing about life in America. He ordered a few pizzas and beers and then ambled  across the street with them. In his absence, we tried to chat with our waiter to inquire as to what saltimbocca might be. He took off across the street and returned with our translator who told us it was a stuffed pizza. Business started to pick up and the little fleet of Vespas buzzed out and back making deliveries of pizza, kept hot in a small box secured to what would be the passenger’s seat. They have a wood fired brick oven and the pizza dough is twirled and tossed to the delight of the foreign customers, of which we were the only two. The more we “oohed “ and “aahed”, the more daring the tossing became. It became clear that this pizzeria is very “autentico” and not a tourist stop. Gary and I love to go out and mingle (if not blend) with the locals and this was a great opportunity. A word on blending – I pride myself on being able to blend in many European countries – I could pass for Italian as long as I don’t speak, but Gary is the proverbial sore thumb here – he tends to blend more in Germany and Slavic countries where there are more people his size. We’ve observed that the Italians are noisy people – but  appear to be having more fun than the rest of us. As much as we love Italy, we are growing a little tired of pizza and pasta

If there were historical things in Salerno, we missed them. The guidebooks describe it as a lively seaport and we can attest it was both of those things. It was very entertaining in the pizzeria with lots of locals stopping in, talking loudly and waving   their hands, delivery boys buzzing off on delivery scooters, some with baskets, some with pizza tucked under their arms.  The tourist attractions are apparently the ancient Roman settlement of Paestum to the south and the Amalfi Coast to the North.  Unfortunately ancient Salerno was reduced to rubble in the pre-invasion shelling in 1943 and the rebuild left a lot to be desired in terms of charm and authenticity – that is to say, there is none.  They do have a duomo (cathedral) from the 12th Century, built on the ruins of one from the 10th Century using columns swiped from the ruins at Paestum  which was built on an ancient Greek site dating back to the 6th Century BC. They also have museums – but we have miles to go and no extra time.

We concluded that this is a working class neighborhood in a working class town. Once we got back  to the hotel, we noticed that it is indeed only the Hotel K,  not the Hotel O.K.  The shower had glass doors that sort of flapped closed rather than sliding. Our reservation showed it as K3*, which we later learned was code for the Hotel K which is a three star hotel.  All I can say is I would be leery of hotels with lesser constellations than those with a total of 3 stars.  From what I can determine – a 3 star gets you towels, which were generously sized, but with a thickness and texture appropriate for drying dishes. In fact the bath “towel” could have doubled as a table cloth. We suspect that terry cloth is only found in constellations above the 3-star designation – below 3 stars may have no towels at all.  The room did have AC and Wi-Fi, and a bed which is earthquake ready – being only about 2 feet off the floor, meaning there is little danger of a big fall if the building starts to shake or if you were over-served at the pizzeria and should consequently fall out of bed.

May 25, 2011

Dateline: Taormina, Sicily, Italy

Latitude at Taormina 37.8 degrees  North, Longitude 15.3 degrees East

A Picnic on the Train

A Picnic on the Train

Today we continued our train journey to Sicily, taking a morning train from Salerno through the region of Calabria and on to the port town of Reggio de Calabria at the very toe of the boot of Italy ( you can picture Sicily as a football being kicked by the toe, but it actually is shaped more like the head of a goat with a kick being delivered to the right ear),  and as promised, our train cars (with us on board) were loaded on a ferry and were whisked (well it was really too slow to  be described as a “whisking”) to the Sicilian port of Messina. We managed to locate a taxi at the train station and took a short but extremely uphill ride to the town of Taormina, perched on a cliff-face, high above the Mediterranean. We had reservations at the Hotel Shuler which turned out to be a lovely little boutique hotel with a small tropical garden and koi pond in back. We could go out the back gate and up a series of steps to the main street of the town, and thus were well positioned to explore.

Sicily’s history is one of conquest – with the locals never coming out on top. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans (bringing Christianity), Barbarians (Vandals and Ostrogoths who expelled the Christians), Byzantines, Arabs (bringing Islam), Normans ( who expelled the Muslims), Spaniards, Austrians, Bourbon kings (no booze, just French nobility) and finally the Italians in 1800’s. Sicily was truly at the crossroads of civilized world, as evidenced by the rich mix of language, culture, cuisine, architecture

The Cliffs of Taormina

The Cliffs of Taormina

The city of Taormina sits on a terrace of a mountain called Monte Tauro. The town was officially founded in 385 BC by the Greek, Andromachus. There was an earlier colony called Naxos on the coast below destroyed by armies from Syracuse (Greece not NY). In 36 BC Taormina was designated a Roman colony by Octavius and it prospered for a time, but was twice destroyed, by the Arabs in the 10th Century and by the Normans in 1078. The town more or less slumbered for the next several hundred years until the 1700’s when it became a tourist destination.

Our taxi went almost straight up from the railway station to 600 feet above sea level to the town which is built on a “balcony” carved out of the mountainside. From this balcony you can see the Straits of Messina and the mainland of Italy. The Greeks built an amphitheater with the stage columns framing a view of Mt. Etna in the Third Century BC and it was later remodeled by the Romans. It is built into the rock face of Mount Tauro at 675 feet and is still used every summer for festivals and performances.. The town is so picturesque with abundant gardens with bougainvillea and oleander draped over ancient stone walls, giving way to intimate piazzas and dramatic overlooks called belvederes. We found the people of Taormina, like other Italians to be fond the “Passeggiata” – the practice of ambling aimlessly along the streets of a city – and we readily adopted this habit.

We had dinner in the  evening at a restaurant called the Gambero Rossi (or Red Shrimp) and sat outdoors under a delightful evening sky and a warm breeze we were told comes from North Africa. We ordered Spaghetti Bolognaise, prosciutto and melon and  Scallopini Marsala. The bill came to 70 Euros – a little over $100 – and quite a bargain for this town. We did see the word “coperto” appearing on our bill which we learned is like a cover charge for sitting down in their restaurant. No music – but still a coperto. Even the gelato stores charge extra if you sit to eat your gelato versus walk out with it.  Tourism is big here, and has eclipsed fishing, olives, grapes and citrus and the tourists are gouged accordingly.

May 26, 2011

Dateline: Taormina, Sicily, Italy

Today we decided to explore the town of Taormina and its labyrinth of steep side streets that branch off of the main street called the Corso Umberto, built on what was the Via Valeria – an old Roman Road that linked Catania to Messina. The Romans had built a retaining wall of sorts with niches for statuary over 370 feet long which supported the Via Valeria and is still standing today.  We arranged for a tour of Mt. Etna and the Alcantara Valley for the next day, as well as ferry reservations from Palermo to Naples for our return to the mainland later in the week. We decided to take a cable car called the Funivia from Taormina to the town of Mazzaro down on the waterfront, a drop in elevation from 197 meters to 25 meters above sea level (a meter being

La Pigna, Sicily

La Pigna, Sicily

roughly 3 feet). There is a beach there called Lido  La Pigna (which translates as the Pines Beach and pines do indeed dot the hillsides) There were a number of sunbathers who mostly use lounge chairs since the beach here has pea to golf ball size stones rather than sand, making for  rather uncomfortable afternoon sunbathing if all you have is a beach towel.  We stopped for lunch at a casual place also called La Pigna– sporting plastic tables, plastic chairs, paper plates – but really plastic was the operative word as we soon learned, since you better have some plastic in your wallet or else a very large wad of bills. I had a Caprese Salad  and Gary had a fish called dorado, plus we had some wine. All were excellent so that kind of eased the pain of paying 60 Euros (about 90 dollars)  for lunch while seated on a plastic chair. You would at least expect some upholstery at those prices, but the scenery was fantastic – beach front, sun sparkling on the water, blue skies, gentle breeze. Life is good – plastic or no plastic.

We went back up to Taormina after lunch for some more sightseeing. I was intrigued with the symbol of Sicily called the Trinicria. It is the head of what looks like a somewhat startled woman with 4 snakes intertwined around her face, small wings where her ears should be, attached to three legs bent at the knee in the 4, 8 and 12 o’clock positions. I   suppose that the discovery of any one of these oddities while perhaps glancing in a mirror would be sufficient to cause her startled expression. The name Trinacria –  comes from ancient times and means “triangle” because Sicily has 3 capes, or pointy headlands and is  roughly triangular in shape.

The Greek Theater, Taormina

The Greek Theater, Taormina

We decided to visit the ancient Greek Theater which is one of Taomina’s primary historical features. It is situated on a cliff, even higher than the town with a commanding view of the cliffs and rolling hills of the island, the glittering Mediterranean and  the snowcapped slopes of Mt. Etna in the distance.  Just off the coast in the Baia Mazzero was the island of Isola Bella  (joined by a low causeway at low tide to the mainland). Gary had hopes for a senior discount when he saw their sign advertising just that, but alas was told that it only applies to old Italians – old foreigners get out your wallets and brace yourselves. The cost seemed as steep as the streets, but we always feel we may never pass this way again so we decided better go inside and see what the Greeks saw and indeed  the Greek Theater proved to be an excellent place to see the sunset.

One of my guidebooks recommended eight different walks around the city and we took some of them and then made up some of our own. We walked extensively and while we didn’t always know where we were going, it was always beautiful.  Another historic site was the Santa Catarina Church, dating from the 17th Century. Romans had an Odeon for musical performances and also a Naumachia (an artificial lake) for mock battles of which very little evidence is left, given the penchant of subsequent civilizations for taking stones already carved to make new structures. For example, here the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele was built on the site of the Roman forum and the Palazzo Corvaia was built from stone from a Roman temple. We went to bed early to rest up for tomorrow early adventure.

May 27, 2011

Dateline:  Mt. Etna, Sicily

Latitude at Mt. Etna 37.75 degrees North, Longitude 15.00 degrees East

Gole Alcantara

Gole Alcantara

Today we walked from our hotel to the bus terminal, a 15 minute walk to join our tour with the Sicilian Airbus Travel Group leaving at 7:00 a.m.  for 87 Euros round trip to Mt. Etna and the Alcantara Gorge (Gole Alcantara in Italian, but Alcantara is from the Arabic word for bridge.) Our first stop was in the Alcantara Valley, where we took a scenic walk along the deep gorge which is over 1 million years old, and provided courtesy of Mt. Etna. We found dramatic scenery comprised of a swiftly flowing stream burbling over rocks and waterfalls working their way through solid basalt rock, as they have done for millennia, creating sheer walls and cliff faces. The river is ice cold, cascading over a series of waterfalls. We learned that “granita” also know as Italian Ice (or flavored ice or snow cone) originated here. The Greeks and Romans created the earliest granita by flavoring snow from Mt. Etna with wine. Marzipan is also big here (almond paste candy made into the shape of fruit) and is pretty to look at, but not so tasty I think.

After hiking the gorge, we took a bus to Randazza, which was billed as an old medieval town, but we didn’t see any evidence of that era as we boarded a train (ferrovia), called the Circumnetea . It runs around the base of the mountain from Catania to Riposto.  There was a convivial multi-national group in our car and we all shared goodies from our respective backpacks to nibble on. From the train we boarded another bus to actually reach the upper area of Mt. Etna where we boarded first the Funivia dell Etna – a gondola lift which would take us up to an elevation of 3,000 meters, and then we boarded their special all terrain vehicles (ATV’s) to take us higher up the mountain.

Leaving the ATV’s , we proceeded on foot. It was getting really cold and foggy at this point ,which made the landscape all the more surreal. There was no visible caldera spewing lava, but there was a smoking sulfurous smell and dozens of steam vents  piercing the black crust over crystallized snow. We saw many deep drifts covered with several inches of gritty, ashy gravel the texture of coarse sand paper. The vents emitted steam, gas and smoke  and were called

Pausing for a Photo Op at a "Fumarolita" atop Mt. Etna

Pausing for a Photo Op at a “Fumarolita” atop Mt. Etna

“fumaroles” or “fumarolitas” if they were small.  The word is from the Latin “fumus” meaning to smoke. We did not go to the summit to see the main caldera since this is an active volcano and it was, if not spewing lava at the moment, was definitely belching smoke. We satisfied ourselves with fumaroles, which were quite intimidating in their own right. We walked around several deep vents crunching on the most recent layer of ash. We saw evidence of earlier structures, now up to the eaves in ash and snow from the previous winter. Prior to 2001 there was a ski facility here, but it was since been destroyed by the volcano.

In ancient times Mt. Etna, Europe’s highest and most active volcano, was believed to be the forge of Vulcan, the God of Fire. It has damaged the town of Catania and surrounding villages many times over the centuries, most recently in 2001  After we got home, Mt. Etna did some serious erupting so what we saw may be covered now. It had been asleep since 2002, but it has erupted seven times the first 4 months of 2012).  The Greeks called it the Pillar of Heaven when gazing on it from the Greek theater in Taormina. White smoke which actually steam is a good sign that she is sleeping, but black smoke indicates trouble (i.e. an eruption) is  brewing. Mt. Etna has erupted approximately 300 times in the last 3,000 years. One of the most violent eruptions was the one in 1667 which destroyed much of Catania, 19 miles way. It is such a contrast to see the lower slopes with their vineyards and groves of lemons, orange, almond and olive, while the upper slopes look like a lunar landscape.

We stopped at an apiary (bee keeper’s place) where we could buy honey on the way home.  Our bus took us back over a new set of torturous hairpin turns. The buses here have rear wheels that steer like a fire truck, but there is no driver back there. We experienced and welcomed a radical change in temperature and got warm for the first time in several hours and eventually we were dropped at the bus stop and walked back to town.

A Picnic on the Terrace at Taormina

A Picnic on the Terrace at Taormina

We decided to do improvise and have our own picnic for an evening meal.  We bought wine, (a great Sicilian  wine called Sedara that we will attempt to find at home) breadsticks, prosciutto and cheese at a salumeria  (delicatessen) called La Torinese, and we bought cantaloupe at a street fruit market. We had a fabulous picnic dinner on the terrace of our hotel overlooking the sea far below, with boats bobbing gently in the bay. We fancied this to be the Sicilian version of the Red Neck Yacht Club that we convene at home for sunsets on the lake.  We had a clear view of Mt Etna to the south, the Ionian Sea to the east, with the sun setting over mountains behind us turning all surfaces to soft pastels.  We remember it as one of the greatest evenings of our trip.

May 28, 2011

Dateline: Palermo, Italy

Latitude at Palermo 38.11 degrees North, Longitude 13.36 degrees East

We took a cab to the Taormina train station, which turned out to be a major investment, but we had a train to catch and so we indulged ourselves, rather than schlepping our bags to the bus stop and going that route with the bazillion backpackers that frequent such places. The train ride was long, covering 259 kilometers (and what a difference those 259 kilometers make – like going from Park Avenue to the Bronx)  We first had an hour ride to Messina and then changed trains for Palermo with another 4 hour ride with 24 stops.  We kept seeing young people hanging out of train windows and thronging train stations, waving pink and black banners and learned that Palermo was playing Rome for the Futbol (a.k.a. soccer) championship of Italy on the next day. And the whole area was in a frenzy – not so different from American NFL fans, painted faces – a little wild-eyed, a little frothing at the mouth and so forth.

Palermo, on the northwest coast of Sicily has approximately25 centuries of history behind it with literally waves of civilizations and conquerors. The first settlers were the Phoenicians in 8th Century BC, followed by the Greeks and then Romans in 3rd Century AD. Once Rome crumbled, the Byzantines  and Arabs came in the 9th Century AD and brought irrigation, and architectural elements as well as citrus couscous, sorbet/granite, sesame seeds and, pistachios.  In 1071 the Normans conquered Palermo and established Catholicism once and for all.

The word “old” gets totally redefined here. For example, there is a Norman era church built in 1148 which was built on the ruins of a mosque that sat there for several centuries which had been built on the ruins of a monastery. We found it to be a fascinating place, but quite a contrast to Taormina, where  we were “oohing” and “aahing” over the scenery. Here we were gawking and gaping at other sights and sounds.  The street markets were selling food, along with everything else imaginable. They made paper cones for loose fruit items – no plastic bags which was a refreshing change.  The streets were filled with people shouting, laughing talking and greeting each other (both men and women) with a double kiss. The city sits in a bowl or natural amphitheater of sorts called the Conca d’Oro (Golden Shell)  with Monte (Mount) Pelligrino to the west and Monte Alfano to the east. To the north is the La Cala Harbor. The valley extends to the south to the ancient town of Monreale which sits on the slopes of Monte Caputo. The city is sometimes politely described as being in “reduced circumstances” – putting it mildly – but there are indications everywhere of its past grandeur. It’s a fascinating place, but not recommended for the fastidious.

The credo that “Less is More” is not followed here. In Palermo More is More,  with elaborate carving upon elaborate carving, as a prime example. Everything seems crowded here– streets, paintings, statuary, shrines, markets, flowers, flowers at shrines, candles, but also litter, graffiti, dead shrubbery, garbage and dirty windows.  Entire districts have become street emporiums with merchandise spilling onto sidewalks under streets strung with banners and lights and luminarie (banners made of light bulbs).

We checked into our hotel and  set off exploring the city on foot.  The main intersection of town is called the Quattro Canti where the Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele meet at what is the mid-point  of the  City.  The intersection is shaped by a Baroque octagon with sculptures at each corner, and each sports an ornate façade of a palace or church, crumbling a little – but still reflecting a refined decadence of sorts. We found there to be churches and oratories (small chapels designated for prayers) on just about every block in the old part of the city, as well as palazzos and villas in various states of repair. It seems as if all the buildings from palazzos to pizzerias  are squeezed together with little evidence of zoning, except perhaps on one street we saw called Via del Liberta – which was a wide avenue with  a decidedly upper crust vibe.

The city is dirty and fascinating and fun and crazy. It is a deeply vibrant and thoroughly boisterous city,  with friendly people appearing to be in perpetually  high spirits. It is a city that can wear you out with your eyes and ears continually assaulted with the sights and sounds. Amid the delicate jacaranda blossoms, you will see laundry flapping in breeze along with banners and balloons and occasional litter blowing down a cobbled street. The smells of Palermo run the gamut as well – from delicious pizza wafting on the air, to a persistent smell of too frequently used urinals, which in fact are often, the city’s sidewalks.  There is  continuous noise in the city – of trucks, cars,  and scooters and a cacophony  of voices amid the lively bustle of bazaars and open air markets, which are often referred to as the ”theaters of Palermo” – offering a daily mix of comedy and drama. For those who don’t go to the markets, deliveries are often made with baskets to high rise apartments. The tenant receiving a delivery lowers a basket from their balcony with payment, and then the delivery person puts merchandise in the basket and it is raised up to the balcony.

To add to the carnival-like atmosphere, a small U.S. attack carrier, the Bataan was in port, complete with Harrier Jets and helicopters. It is 927 feet long , approximately the size of a cruise ship. Both sailors and marines stormed the streets, here on R&R from duty off the Libyan Coast enforcing  the no fly zone for NATO.  We stopped for a snack at La Brace, a sidewalk café of sorts, but in the tackiest sense of the word. It was a combination pizzeria and polloeria (chicken place). In Tuscany we would have had a canvas umbrella, wood or tile table, and upholstered chairs under a tree. Here at the polloeria we had a wobbly table inches from a busy street, precariously balanced  on a sloped cracked sidewalk, flimsy plastic forks and even flimsier paper plates, But then ambiance isn’t everything – the food looked and smelled so good, we went back for dinner. They were serving whole rotisserie chickens, mounds of fries, and hush puppy like things with veggies inside.

Mercato Vuccira

Mercato della Vucciria

We walked to the oldest market in town, Mercato della Vucciria, which dates back to the Arab occupation in medieval times in the 7th Century A.D. It remains very much a souk, with streets no wider than a supermarket aisle, and with product and produce stacked high on all sides. It is designed for foot traffic, but there are careening scooters and bicyclists competing with pedestrians for space with people scattering in every direction with the occasional fruit stand/scooter wreck when there is a miscalculation. It seems to be part casbah and part burrow as it winds through the Loggia district below street level of the Via Roma. Merchants, artisans, bankers, hawkers, shoppers, tourists and pickpockets all amble though the narrow alleys that are named after trades – e.g. silversmiths, dyers, wool merchants.  We quickly learned that we must take personal responsibility for personal safety. That is to say it is our job to get out of the way of an oncoming scooter, avoid the gaping hole created by missing manhole cover, and dodge the tumbling merchandise that may become dislodged by excessive celebrations.

We stopped for wine in the Vucciria at a bar called Maccheronai  and got a half liter for 5 Euros, a much better bargain than at Taormina, but of course this didn’t have quite the same view. Instead of scenery, we were treated to spectacle. We watched, for example, a restaurant owner going down the street to get food to fill orders for dinner. There was Arabic music playing, with banners for soccer flapping in the breeze, strung across narrow alleys like a used car lot, scantily clad women in really impractical shoes wobbling through the cobbled streets – it’s all here At one al fresco restaurant/ macellaria (butcher shop), we watched tripe being cooked for

Grilling Culinary Delights at the Vucciria Market

Grilling Culinary Delights at the Vucciria Market

kebabs, and the chef, seeing our interest brought us behind the counter for a demonstration.  We took a pass on tasting  the tripe kebabs, but bought big scallions wrapped in bacon that proved to be very tasty. We were invited to come back the following night for a big party to watch Palermo play Rome for the Italian futbol (i.e. soccer) championship. In fact they were putting up a big Jumbotron sized screen for the event while we were there. We marveled at the irony of a Jumbotron in a market that has been operating in roughly the same fashion for over a thousand years. They also have a fair number of homeless people who often live in cardboard shelters, sometimes forming cardboard condos where 3 or more are grouped together. But when we saw one of them talking on a cell phone, we concluded that irony is rich in the city of Palermo, even if the people are not.

May 29, 2011

Dateline Palermo, Italy

Today we had great expectations for a city tour of 4 hours duration at the not so modest fee of 170 Euros.  We were expecting a private tour with a native of Palermo who would be an expert historian who spoke flawless English.  We had booked the tour with Alessandra D’Eridita, but as it turned out she outsourced the job to someone who I called Guido. Well the “tour” was indeed private and we did have a native of the City with us, but the other expectations – not so much.  Guido knew less English than I know Italian (which is a small amount indeed) so Italian was the language in which we conversed.   La Signora (that would be me) “no capisce” (did not understand) most of what he said and she “capisced” less with every mile.  In essence, what we had was a two and half hour cab ride. Now I must say he did take us to see the highlights in my guidebook, (once I told him in my broken Italian what the highlights of the city actually were that is).  Palermo is awash in palaces (palazzos)  cathedrals (cattedrales), chapels (capellinis), churches (chiesas) and the small prayer places called oratorios. They also have duomos which is a specific type of cathedral which falls under an archbishop. We eventually decided to cut the 4 hour tour short and paid a mere 120 Euros to save ourselves from being churched to death.

Piazza x

Piazza Pretorio

We did see St. Catherine’s Church with a wonderful adjacent fountain (Fontana) in the Piazza Pretorio started in 1566 and built in the baroque style with a proliferation of elaborate marble inlays, frescoes and sculptures. We also got a very entertaining brochure describing the monastery there which indicated that “initially this monastery only gave hospitality to prostitutes . . . but after much munificence” (money from the Church  and wealthy families we assume), the monastery became “nobility’s buttonhole flower”. The brochure went on to rhapsodize over each detail of the church’s décor, of which there are thousands, in each of 6 side chapels and the main church and altar.  We did notice the Piazza Pretoria did seem to sport a lots of naked statues, so much so that the more pious Sicilians call it the Fontana della Vergogna (Fountain of Shame).

Then we visited the Duomo, started in 1184 A.D. which has a little Gothic, a little Norman, some Catalan and some Arabic influence. Sicily kept getting conquered over the course of the construction so each conquering party added their own touches. The overall effect was nevertheless stunning and quite ornate, befitting an archbishop. There is a lot of royalty buried here and the Treasury is home to the Royal  Jewels.  We missed the Treasury, due to the lack of guidance by our guide, but later read that it was not uncommon for royalty to be buried with their jewels, only to be dug up and have them removed to put on display – as was the fate of Constance of Aragon in the 18th Century.

The Massimo Theater

The Massimo Theater

We also missed seeing the inside of the Palazzo Reale, (Royal Palace) dating back over a thousand years, now home to the regional government of Sicily. It was built in Arab times originally and enlarged by the Normans. The line to get in was around the block and our “guide” who could be expected to facilitate cutting in line as guided tours so often do, looked at us with a blank stare when I broached the subject. Of course I could have used the wrong words and said something totally appalling since I was trying to communicate in Italian. I think he was thinking he could have a nap while we waited to marvel at the wonders of the Palazzo. We settled for what I call a “drive-by shooting” – you drive by and shoot pictures.  We also did a drive-by of the various famous theaters of the city including the  Massimo Theater, Garibaldi Theater,  and the Teatro Politeama,

One stop we made that we did not have on our list of must see  items was at the Catacoms Dei Cappucini Palmero –  (a.k.a. the Capuchin Catacombs), run by the Capuchin monks who have the strange habit of keeping dead bodies around for display purposes. I’m not sure what’s up with that, but it definitely will creep you out.  The Capuchins for years had dallied with mummifications and preserving the bodies of the dead with varying degrees of success

This catacomb was built in the 16th Century to bury (or perhaps “store” is a better word), the bodies of monks. It was expanded to include priests and lay people separated into categories of clergy, professionals, children, men and women. This has to be one of more bizarre sights we’ve ever seen. Originally they started burying monks in the traditional way in a coffin. Then they transitioned to preserving and displaying them  standing up at some point.  One method involved dipping bodies in arsenic of lime and was used mostly with plague victims. The most common method was desiccation – just letting the bodies dry out. Here is that recipe: (1) Place the deceased in a closed cell for 8 months (the cell is called a strainer – I shudder to think why) (2) remove and wash with vinegar, (3)expose to fresh air to complete drying. Then (4) based on the wishes of the deceased or his/her family, place in a coffin or niche for display.

There are cadavers all lining the corridors arranged by type. In the clergy section there are many monks in cassocks and robes, upright with heads drooping. Strangely enough, many bear nametags like they were fresh (poor choice of words, I admit) from a convention.  Some are arranged in gruesome tableaus, maybe around a dinner table, to give the impression of some sort of ghoulish interaction.  It is one thing to see skulls artistically arranged in, say a pyramid or other geometric shape, but here they are in the clothes they died in with gruesome expressions on their faces with expressions ranging from “ouch” to   blaspheming and screaming bloody murder.

In the Men’s section, niches are horizontal like bunk beds, but with fully dressed skeletons.  Some are displayed upright though and look more like scarecrows, with the head slumped forward –requiring some sort of support somehow to keep gravity at bay. One scene had an altar with a cross with a casket in front of it with four women skeletons fully dressed , positioned as mourners looking on with hands clasped before them.  The Professional section included doctors, teachers and other professionals, as well as officers, and soldiers. Sometimes the monks seemed to get playful with their tableaux – maybe a little tongue in cheek, like a husband and wife set up to look like she’s nagging away at him and he’s hanging his head like he deserves it. This catacomb business is a bizarre practice to say the least.

These particular catacombs were featured recently on a cable TV show as the home to an exceptionally well preserved body of a child named Rosalia Lombardo, who looks like she is simply sleeping. While she has been dead since 1920 she still managed a cable debut on the Discovery Channel. She was reportedly perfectly preserved in a doll-like pose, with chemicals injected  by Dr. Alfred Salafia of Palermo, whose formula was lost somewhere and has not ever been replicated. We didn’t see her here and figure she must be on a road tour

It must have become increasingly difficult to run a decent catacomb in later years.  In 1837 there was a law passed forbidding exhibition of bodies. Then to add insult to injury – I guess they were beyond injury at this point – there were many bodies extensively damaged by Allied bombings in 1943 and then there was a fire in 1966 and now there is an endless stream of gawking tourists wandering through.



From the catacombs, we drove to Monreale  to the 12th Century Cattedrale di Santa Mario la Nuove.   It was built of golden stone by the Normans on the slopes of a mountain above Palermo in 1172. We couldn’t go in since a service was underway (Guido professed not to know this fact) and he confessed he didn’t know what was inside since he had never actually been inside (strange standards for guides here).  I read my guidebook to see what we missed which I found included 6,000 square yards of mosaics  depicting biblical scenes, carvings, columns, inlays, and a very ornate altar. We did pay a fee to see the Arabic style Cloisters  and Gardens of the adjacent Benedictine abbey which were quite impressive , as was the view from a terrace with Palermo spread out before us to the north.

We returned to Palermo and dismissed Guido, our taxi driver, posing as a tour guide, and set out on foot. We stopped for pizza a few blocks off the harbor and met two E-6’s from the Bataan, chatted a while and bought their lunch. They had left Norfolk in late March and had been deployed off Libya to enforce the no-fly zone.  The ship was carrying 1,000 sailors and 2,000 Marines, most of whom were on the loose in Palermo that day.

We took a stroll down the Via del Liberta – sort of like a poor cousin to the Recoleta area in Buenos Aires, with nice shops, cheek and jowl, with major litter. Our walk took us through an English style park, but the tranquility was shattered Palermo style by a motorcycle rally of several hundred bikes with the few Harleys, vastly outnumbered by Vespas.

We got a freebie tour in the late afternoon due to the “miscommunication” with our supposedly English speaking tour guide, but since this is Sicily – we didn’t want to get too mouthy (maybe we have seen too many movies,  but for all we knew Guido was what they call “mobbed up” or maybe a Wise Guy.) The freebie was a ride up to Monte Pelligrino (which means “pilgrim” in Italian) to a grotto (shrine) of Santa Rosalia who saved the city from the Black Plague. A hunter was told where to find her bones so she was sanctified, beatified, etc. There is a procession of Santa Rosalie on July 15th  every year in which her  statue is put on an ox-drawn float to make the same journey that  her remains made in 1624 to end the Black Plague. The Shrine has a gold likeness of her inside a glass case and from the top of the mountain there are great views of Palermo to the east. From this vantage point it became  apparent why they called the curving shoreline the Conca d’Oro or Golden Shell.

We returned to Palermo to prepare for the big party in the city tonight for the soccer match against Rome for the national championship in which Palermo is the underdog. From the hotel we walked around the neighborhood and ate lasagna at a local restaurant. It was a bargain at 11 Euros for the meal plus 3 cokes at a restaurant with the improbable name of Danimart. It was more like a deli take-out, but the food was good.  Danimart was billed as a paniceria (bakery) pasticeria (pasta place), bar, and pizzeria. On this night, the whole town took on a sort of Super Bowl atmosphere. At the Danimart, the pizzas were flying off shelves to go to what we envisioned to be street parties.  We bought a Palermo team shirt ( for me) and a hat ( for Gary) and were quite a hit with the locals. There were grills out on the streets and the people cooking called us over to check out their food, have a beer and taste some of whatever it was they were grilling. (Gary ate his and under his breath reported a suspicious taste – I surreptitiously disposed of mine in the shrubbery). We had several invitations to stay and watch the game, but fearing more generosity with the grilled mystery food, we went back to the hotel. We intended to watch the game but fell asleep and only later learned that Palermo lost  3–1.

May 30, 2011

Dateline: Palmero

We had a full day left since our ferry to Naples left in the late afternoon  and so we  got up early and walked around the city.  Today Palermo is home to 1 million people with minimal attention to zoning and so our very nice hotel was just up the street from the Carcere Ucciardone ( a large jail)  and right across the street from the  commercial  produce market called the Mercato Ortofrutticolo, which was our first stop. The market is open 6 days a week at dawn, but it is empty by noon with vendors taking delivery of mass quantities of farm products. The vendors

Mobile Cheese Store - Palermo

Mobile Cheese Store – Palermo

were like everyone else we had met here – friendly and anxious to show us their operation and products – all fresh vine-ripened stuff.  We also saw teensy snails called babbaluci and special pasta called lumachine. We chatted up the workers and found many who work the market distribution center were immigrants from Ghana. They would slice open anything you might be interested in to demonstrate the quality including, apricots, oranges, cherries, strawberries, watermelon broccoli, spinach, lettuce, squash.  My favorite sight was an ancient Toyota 4-door sedan, totally filled – floorboard to roof with ripe apples – a combination delivery vehicle and display case.   Another standout was State Fair Prize sized giant zucchini, around 4 feet long.   All the vendors very generously offered all kinds of samples

A Fully Loaded APE

A Fully Loaded APE

including a monster tomato which I later re-gifted to a grateful homeless man. Instead of the Kawasaki mules like we have at home, they had a 3 wheeled version called the Ape (made by Piaggi , a scooter manufacturer) to bring in produce and then take it to delis and street market throughout the city. In addition to Apes, they also use cars, scooters, bicycles, and hand carts – always overloaded and under-maintained. We did see one spectacular wreck involving  a stack of cabbage, a bicycle and a hand cart. Once the market closes, local people pick through leftovers – sometimes a whole Apeload, which we figured they probably go sell at a discount place somewhere, although  we did see some obviously hungry people who ate it on the spot.


The Duomo of Palermo

The Duomo of Palermo

We went in the Duomo, founded in 1184 by the Archbishop of Palermo since we had only done a drive by with Guido. It was beautiful and way over the top as only European cathedrals can be with soaring arches, gold and silver everywhere, priceless art and sculptures. We walked through Porto Nuova (the new gate which is still ancient) to the Normanni Palace (aka Palazzo Reale or Royal Palace), but again as it was the day before,  the lines were long so we just admired it from the outside.   It is currently the seat of government of Sicily – sort of Governor’s Mansion meets Buckingham Palace.  From there we strolled past flea markets with all sorts of antiques – everything from old sewing machines to stone cherubs.  For our groceries for this evenings trip, we stopped at a Carrefours grocery store for the basics, i.e.  wine, bread, cheese and fruit.  We had to have some coaching from a nice local lady, who showed us how to weigh

Big Guy, Small Horse at the Park in Palermo

Big Guy, Small Horse
at the Parco della Favorita

our fruit before taking it to the checkout register. From Carrefours, we took a long walk through the Parco della Favorita, which was originally a hunting preserve for royalty, in particular King Ferdinand, which back in the day was surrounded by the summer villas of aristocrats. Today it is more like Coney Island crossed with an English park sort of gone wild in places. We encountered the tiniest pony I have ever seen, about the size of a Labrador retriever, pulling a tiny cart, which we surmised was for giving toddlers rides, although none were partaking at the time.

Tracing our route, we later figured out we walked a total of about 6 miles –  with stops for cokes, lunch, wine, snacks,  and we did a little shopping for our upcoming ferry trip.  Unfortunately since Palermo  had lost the soccer match last night, the droopy banners only seemed to underscore the loss. We had to be careful where we walked since the street cleaners were not yet out and about and our olfactory senses indicated that the whole city must have served as an open air Men’s Room during the festivities.

We picked up our bags at the hotel and took a taxi to the gate to the ferry. We still had quite a “schlep” from there so we were thankful that we had wheels on them. Our ship was the SNAV Sardigne with both passenger cabins and huge bays below decks for cars to drive on and drive off.  The fare for 2 was 143 Euros for a deluxe cabin (deluxe we found has so very many meanings here – I would have called it a Basic Cabin). We waited for close to half an hour as the ferry belched first black smoke and then white, just like when a new pope has been elected .

Leaving Palermo, Bound for sorrento

Leaving Palermo, Bound for sorrento

We got on the ferry at 6:00 p.m. and departed at 8:00 just as the sun was setting behind Monte Pelligrino.   We found a bench on the aft deck and had our wine and cheese as we departed.  We met 4 American expats  who were working in Naples,  but who didn’t provide a lot of detail on their jobs so we figured them for CIA spooks or spook wannabes.   There was absolutely nothing happening in any of the several lounges on board (i.e the lights weren’t even on) and one look at the shipboard restaurant made us glad we had gone to Carrefours. We went to bed early in our cozy little room. It faced forward with a small window so we could see out onto working foredeck, but it was too low to see any ocean views.  No frills and no lifeboat drills – just an overnight passage to Naples.



May 31, 2011

Dateline: Sorrento, Italy

Latitude at Sorrento 40.52 degrees North, Longitude 14.37 degrees East

The View from Sorrento

The View from Sorrento

We arrived in Naples around 7:00 a.m., but didn’t get to disembark until 8:00 from the ferry. We had only a short stroll to get to the ferry for Sorrento, but it turned into a long stroll by the time we negotiated all the fences and gates and so forth. We got our ferry tickets for the 9:00 a.m. ferry for the hour long ride on the A. Lauro line, for 11 Euros per person. We disembarked to find ourselves at sea level  at  the Marina San Francisco  and our destination, the town of Sorrento 150 feet  straight up . We consulted the Rick Steves book and found there was a bus by the Marina Piccolo (little marina) to take us up to the top of the cliffs, running every few minutes for a modest sum versus a taxi, which was closer to legalized piracy. We were congratulating ourselves on our European savvy when we realized the bus stop was at the train station and we still had to haul our bags to the hotel, perhaps half a mile away. It was a beautiful day and pretty much level rolling with only occasional stairs.

Sorrento on the Cliffs Above the Adriatic

Sorrento on the Cliffs Above the Adriatic

Sorrento, wedged between mountains and ocean, is situated upon cliffs on a peninsula far above the sea, with Vesuvius rising in the background The town is long and narrow with one main street, the Corso Italia, which turns into the Via Capo (Cape Road) once it leaves town leading south to the the Amalfi Coast.  The main square, the Piazza Tasso, sporting perfect flower boxes and picturesque outdoor restaurants  seemed like a Disney World venue.  In Italy we found that the piazzas serve as common living rooms since home apartments are often small and cramped and the Piazza Tasso was no exception. The town is famous for a perfect climate, great lemons and lemoncello. They also have softball-sized lemons that they call citrons, but  they are more for show than taste. We wandered about most of the afternoon drinking in the views and  drinking up the vino.

A gorge divides the town and separates the new from a charming old quarter and a bridge built in the 19th Century connects the two. There are also steps to the sea which were carved in the 5th Century by the Romans. The name Sorrento comes from the Greek word for Siren (mythical females who sang to sailors to cause them to wreck their ships) The Romans used this area as a summer playground which they called Sorrentum and ruins from the time of Caesar Augustus have been found. Sorrento was a favorite of opera singers, home to Caruso in his day, and more recently Pavarotti. When he belts out “Return to Sorrento”, it can bring goose bumps, even if you don’t know the language.

Rolling our bags behind us, we arrived at our hotel (The Carlton on the Via Correale), which was only a  5 minute walk from the square. Technically it was close to the harbor too, but that was straight down about 500 feet. We checked in, dropped the bags off, and set off on foot to explore. We had lunch at a restaurant called Mannequin Pis (after the statue by the same name in Brussels we assumed)  and settled on fish and chips, since at this point , pizza and pasta were starting to wear a bit thin. We spent a delightful afternoon napping and reading by the

Sorrento Sunset at the Foreigner's Club Terrace

Sorrento Sunset at the Foreigner’s Club Terrace

pool at the hotel under a grove of lemon and orange trees.  In the evening we went out to dinner at the Foreigner’s Club and sat on a breezy terrace under towering palm trees with soft music playing and a great view of the dramatic coastline of the Bay of Naples stretching away north and south. The Isle of Capri, tomorrow’s destination was visible in the distance to the west. We learned that they have a Men’s Club just down the street, a carry-over from the old days – still no women and no phones. We took an after dinner stroll and stopped at a bar with wi-fi to have a drink and check emails.

June 1, 2011

Dateline: Capri, Italy

Latitude at Capri 40.55 degrees East, Longitude 14.22 degrees North

We took the ferry from Sorrento (very short cab ride as the crow flies, but the crow wasn’t flying so we paid 16 Euros to go less than half a mile – straight down).  We found as a rule that Italian cabs take you for a ride in more ways than one. We could have rappelled but it would be so awkward with the luggage.  Clouds had been gathering on the horizon as we boarded the ferry

Marina Grande, Capri

Marina Grande, Capri

and en route it began to pour 15 minutes into a 30 minute ride.  By the time we disembarked at the Marina Grande (Big Marina), we could see nothing for the sheets of rain before us.  We left the ferry with our rolling bags and emerged into the chaos that is the Capri Ferry dock, with the added mayhem of hundreds of tourists seeking shelter from the rain. We huddled, cold and wet, with roughly a gazillion passengers trying to take shelter under an awning designed to shade perhaps 20.  We waited for about half an hour, but decided it was not going to let up anytime soon.  We sprinted to a taxi stand called the Farrarelle, with rolling bag wheels a-flying. We hopped into a tiny cab, a convertible cab no less. It had a little Bimini top for shade, but today the cab was enclosed to keep out the rain. As the cab started the uphill climb, we looked back to see that our bags were hanging out the back getting thoroughly soaked in the downpour as we drove. We would later learn as we unpacked that they are quite porous around the zippers too so everything inside got a good rinsing. And so we spent another 15 Euros for another

Luggage Handling in Capri

Luggage Handling in Capri

vertical cab ride of less than a mile and it was still pouring. For deliveries, they do have tiny little electric delivery trucks, like those at Home Depot that beep up and down the aisles, that serve the same function as their 18 wheeler counterparts – flatbeds, panels, garbage, reefers, postal – only in miniature.

I had envisioned being delivered to the doorstep of the hotel, but this was not to be. Instead we were delivered to a taxi stand at the Piazza Martiri d’Ungheria and were told to walk just the short distance to the nearby Piazza Umberto since Capri proper is pedestrian only, and we could find our hotel from there Well I have to admit, that the Piazza Umberto was indeed nearby, but the hotel, not so much.  We again sheltered under an awning in the piazza for a few minutes, but since the rain was blowing sideways, we decided we couldn’t get any wetter if we were out walking around in it. We donned our raincoats, quite late in game at this point and opened umbrellas, which immediately turned inside out and took off like  Mary Poppins ‘ parasol.   In desperation I left Gary under the awning with the luggage (2 duffles, 2 backpacks) and set off to find the hotel. I called first and could not understand a word the clerk at the hotel was saying other than “go down the hill” from the piazza which confused me because I knew we were supposed to have broad vistas to enjoy from the hotel terraces. I set off heading “down” as instructed and inquired the way no fewer than 6 times in no less than 30 minutes before stumbling upon the sign for the Villa Krupp, towering at least two hundred feet above me. I dragged my sodden self up a long, tall series of steps, and burst into the dining room tremendously breathless, wet and bedraggled.

A Deluge in Capri - Trying to Stay Dry at the Piazza Umberto

A Deluge in Capri – Trying to Stay Dry at the Piazza Umberto

Our hostess welcomed me and tut-tutted in Italian over my sodden apparel and heavy breathing and suggested I call Gary and have him take the bags to the Co.Fa.Ca – a porter service  in town and then he could follow in my footsteps to the hotel. I knew this plan could only result in disaster and perhaps endanger my marriage, and so I set off back the way I had come to find Gary – just where I had left him, but now sipping contentedly on a cappuccino. We dragged our bags to the porter service (which was precisely where the taxi had dropped us a few hours earlier) and they brought our luggage to the hotel for six Euros per bag, which we later considered a bargain once we saw what was involved in their transport. We shouldered our sodden backpacks and trudged to the hotel as the hard rain continued. We were surprised to find we arrived ahead of our bags until we learned that delivery of the luggage included a motorized cart for part of the way, followed by porters hefting  the bags onto their shoulders  and climbing the  steps We were glad to be watching, not schlelpping ourselves. We totally emptied our duffle bags and backpacks and spread everything out to dry – it looked like the worst Earthquake at the Laundromat scenario  you can imagine – maybe a 9.0 on the Richter scale.

The rain was actually starting to taper off from hurricane force to merely  torrential and we set out to explore and have lunch at the Faraglioni Restaurant , and a truly outstanding lunch it was.  We had two bottles of wine, each of which cost only slightly less than our hotel room, but we felt we had suffered so much that we deserved it. It was a 2008 Monteventrano and was absolutely divine. We watched the rain while we sat on a covered outdoor terrace and somewhat gleefully pointed out dripping wet people hurrying by getting pelted by the rain.  Gary ordered fresh fish and I had baby squid called calamarettas, which were the best I’ve ever had.

The Faraglioni, Capri

The Faraglioni, Capri

With great restraint I managed to not lick the plate.   We shared a Caprese Salad which is essential if you are on Capri, which is the salad’s namesake.   The restaurant is actually named after the iconic 3 needle-like free-standing rocks that jut above the ocean’ s surface just off Capri’s southern shore, with the tallest pinnacle close to 400 feet high. Had the rain permitted, they would have been visible from our table. We walked back to the hotel for a restorative nap with the windows open and drying clothes hanging from every knob and hanger

The rain finally stopped in time for us to enjoy a sunset walk to town and dinner at Baco di Bucca – a local place. There was no view but they had a wood fired pizza oven and heavenly pizza with more good wine. It was chilly outside with the rainy weather, and so we really appreciated the fire.  We walked back to the hotel, I, making my fourth ascent up to the lofty Villa Krupp of the day. We welcomed our warm dry bed and read about how Capri was supposed to be.

Capri  (we learned it is pronounced with the accent on “cap”) is a mountainous island off the coast of the Sorrentine Peninsula just south of Naples. It has been the summer playground of the Rich and Famous as far back as Emperor Tiberius in 26 A.D. – sort of the Camp David or the Palm Beach of its day. Anyone who was  anyone has strolled through the piazzas and piazettas (the name for those little pocket sized spots, not big enough to be called piazzas) on the island. The climate has often been described as aphrodisiacal, with lush gardens, dramatic views, and pounding surf.  We speculated that Eden must have been like this 5 square mile island. Capri today is home to the glitterati – but more Martha’s Vineyard than Hollywood –i.e., simple and understated – unless of course you are talking about the yachts moored in the harbor. Capri is where the glitterati go to hide out without really hiding.

Capri has been over the centuries a retreat for emperors,  a secluded site for monasteries,  a bonanza for fishermen, a hideout for exiles, and a playground for wealthy German and British citizens in the 19th and 20th Centuries, as well as aristocrats from the Romantic Age. Now the island is frequently clogged with tourists of less substantial means (like us for example) but it does settle down once the cruise ship passengers leave. We considered ourselves one rung above these day trippers on the snobbery scale.

The main landmarks  of the island are its two car-free towns, Capri and Anacapri, filled with colorful houses in either white or pastels, and two marinas on the Tyrrhenian Sea , Marina Grande (Big Marina) for commercial boats and Marina Piccolo (Little Marina) for yachts.  Until 1874 there were no roads connecting Capri with Anacapri, but only a series of steps called the Phoenician Stairway. There are several modes of transportation here: ferries, boats, buses, taxis (with convertible roof) scooters and feet. (Only feet are allowed in the town and miniature delivery trucks) Also from the Piazza Umberto, you can take a funicular to Marina Grande. Off of Piazza Umberto is the Via Vittorio Emanuele, the Rodeo Drive of Capri with same shops and same clientele. The best hotel is reportedly the very elegant Quisisana,  where we will stay once we win the Powerball Lottery and return on our yacht.

June 2, 2011

Dateline: Capri, Italy

Today was our anniversary, (the 40th) which dawned beautiful and sunny – our first of many gifts in a fabulous day of them. Today we would see first-hand what all those brochures and guide books were touting.  We took the cable car called the Funiculare down to Marina Grande to look into hiring a boat for a trip around the island and to the famous Blue Grotto. We met

Cruising with Captain Gerry

Cruising with Captain Gerry

Jerry, (short for Gennario) a native of Capri, who described all the wonders he could show us from his own boat, named L’Uragano, except the Blue Grotto which was closed due to rough water. But he says there are many other grottoes to behold. We decided to take a chance on Jerry, and as it turned out, this developed into a morning of extreme serendipity. His boat was all wood, varnished to a high sheen and quite spacious. We felt very smug watching other boats laden with people from stem to stern like cattle being shipped to market, piloted by people whom Jerry dubbed the “lying Neapolitans”, who only pretended to be native to Capri. So for a hundred Euros, Jerry and his boat were ours for a half day trip around the island. His boat was about 40 feet long – solid wood, polished to a high gloss and the two of us were the only passengers. We set off with Captain Jerry (I seem to recall there is a good rum with that name too) and his First Mate CJ, the dog , scruffy, but sweet, who apparently

First Mate CJ

First Mate CJ

accompanied all tours and liked to take the occasional dip into the azure waters himself.  We had a leisurely cruise around the island and a fabulous time, taking in the gorgeous scenery from the water. We saw a number of grottos, small cave-like openings in rock carved by wind and water with a Virgin Maria and Bambino in just about everyone with the occasional Pieta (the grieving Mary) sprinkled in. When there was not actual statuary, there were perceived likenesses in the rock formations (most a little hard to make out – sort of like seeing the face Jesus in your toast in the morning).

Waters of Capri

Waters of Capri

We cruised around the Faraglioni, the 3 pinnacles rising from the sea, and through the one which has an arch – perhaps the reason for the name which translates as “the ones of the light”, taking photos all the while.  As we ended our tour back in Marina Grande, Gary tipped Jerry 20 Euro and CJ 10 to be held in trust by Captain Jerry since CJ carried no wallet.

In the afternoon we rented a little Vespa-like bright yellow scooter from Noleggio Motorini., which proved both an excellent way to see the island, and a whole afternoon of thrills, but at some considerable risk to life and limb – mostly limb I would say.  After several near misses wedged between rock walls and tour busses on hairpin turns, we were wondering if the first 5 letters of the name (i.e. No leg) had some special meaning, i.e. you may be missing a leg when you return, if you return.  I felt my knobby kneecaps were especially vulnerable since I was riding behind Gary, and his, shall we say, less than diminutive size made my knees stick out at right angles to my body. I was worried about losing a knob or two from my knobby knees. His knees

The No-leg Scooter, Capri

The No-leg Scooter, Capri

on the other hand were safely tucked in. Fortunately Gary took exceptional care, and I and my knobby knees live to ride another day. We did have helmets which probably would provide some comfort for some small calamity, but in the case of a catastrophic plunge from the heights, they would be totally useless.

We stopped in the town of Anacapri, the only other town on the island, whose name means opposite Capri). We had lunch on the main square called Piazza Vittoria and considered our options. There was a nearby mansion and garden called the Villa San Michele, home of Axel Munthe, a wealthy businessman who cavorted here with artsy and gay people such as Oscar Wilde. We decided to pass on this and instead we chose the Seggiovia chair lift up Monte Solaro, the tallest peak on the island. The lift took us from the village of Anacapri at 589 feet to over 1,700 feet above sea level.  We passed over  meadows full of wild flowers and lemon orchards, whose products are widely used in much of the Caprese cuisine

The View from Anacapri

The View from Anacapri

The peak is 1,900 feet above sea level and offers the best panorama on the island.  We could just make out the ruins of the Villa Jovis, from where Emperor Tiberius  had ruled the Roman Empire, and sometime hid from assassins in 23-37 AD, his final years. Today the Certosa di San Giacomo, a Carthusian monastery founded in 1371 stands on the site of the ruins of Villa Jovis. It became a school in 1808 and is still operating today . The Carthusians are a Catholic order who focus on contemplation and from this mountaintop,  they certainly had the perfect place to do it.  In the distance on the mainland we could see the Sorrentine Peninsula against the backdrop of Vesuvius, the sweep of Naples Baby and the Amalfi Coast, as well as the Galli Islands and the Faraglioni Rocks..

We had the option to walk back down, which we decided to do to absorb more of the local ambiance. The ride up was 15 minutes and the trip down was a 40 minute  toe crunching, knee-stressing,  steeply inclined walk with a lot of braking action. While it was beautiful, our legs were seriously trembling by the time we got back to Anacapri. It really gave us a sense of the non-touristic side of Capri (a very small percentage, I might add) and it made me glad to climb back on the Noleggio motor scooter, despite the risk to life and limb.

Rough Water at the blue Grotto

Rough Water at the blue Grotto

We rode out to the the Blue Grotto (a.k.a. Grotta Azzura) to see if it might be open, but the waves were breaking at the entrance in rather spectacular style, so it was still closed. In calm weather you can enter in 8 ft. dinghies with special guides who paddle you through a 3 foot high entrance – more of a crack in the rock, than a respectable portal. We learned that inside, the cave is approximately 60 yards long. It is a vaulted chamber with as many as 3 thousand tourists visiting per day in July , the peak month. The Romans had enlarged it to its current size and called it a nymphaeum – their name for a swimming hole,  in this case, a very elegant swimming hole that in its day was ringed with statues of Poseidon  and other gods– all very decadent.  It is believed that there was a tunnel to the palace and that the Romans held orgies here, but the tunnel and the statuary are long gone.

We had a lovely dinner at the Il Geranio restaurant, overlooking the Faraglioni Rocks, the signature feature of Capri. I had fresh fish and Gary ordered pasta and clams and we  shared one of my favorites, prosciutto  (or Parma ham as they call it) and melon. The restaurant itself had a magical setting on an outdoor terrace, allowing us to enjoy their truly delightful (now that the rain has gone) climate.  There are always lots of celebrities about in Capri, in the evenings in particular. In fact our waiter told us that Leonardo and Naomi were just there last week. (he had to further explain that he meant di Caprio and Campbell). I usually get my celebrity updates while in the checkout line at the grocery store, so I at least knew who they were, but I had to enlighten Gary, who is perpetually and blissfully unaware of who’s who in Hollywood.

June 3, 2011

Dateline: Capri, Italy

The Villa Krupp Hotel

The Villa Krupp Hotel

Today we decided to explore on foot that which we could not do by boat or scooter. In front of our hotel, the Villa Krupp, lies the Via Krupp which snakes its way from our mountain top to Piccolo Marina in a series of steep switchbacks. Our hotel is the former villa of Friedrich Krupp, a wealthy industrialist from Germany whose holdings included much of the hardware and weaponry that  the Germans used in both World Wars. He built the Via Krupp in 1902 as a pathway to get from his house to  Piccolo Marina where he no doubt kept his yacht. We walked down the steep path and enjoyed fabulous views at every turn. I don’t think

The Via Krupp

The Via Krupp

we would have enjoyed the uphill trip nearly as much. We noticed that the Stations of the Cross were featured along the route. We have found that with almost any long hilly walk in Italy, you will frequently find the Stations of the Cross with the requisite niches and offertories, which are often much longer and more arduous than the actual Way of the Cross (Via Dolorosa)  in Jerusalem

At the marina we had a small refreshment (2  8 oz. bottles of Diet coke for 10 Euros (or about $15.) While choking over that, we did have to admit it was a million dollar view. The water was a

Marina Piccolo, Capri

Marina Piccolo, Capri

fabulous gin clear azure, and there was a cool breeze and breathtaking scenery. There is one of Capri’s several beach clubs here, although there is not much beach. Clients pay 20 Euros for the day to use chairs and umbrellas on platforms built on rocks.

We humbled ourselves to take a city bus back to the town of Capri, although we suspect if we truly followed in Friedrich Krupp’s footsteps, we would have been met by a private carriage. The bus fare was 1.25 Euros each, That’s how you know you’ve gone native when you get some reasonable prices. Note to self: locals do not drink Diet Coke.

Once back in town, we took another stroll to a gelato shop for my favorite fragola (strawberry). Gary is prone to experiment with different flavors, the more bizarre sounding the better. He seems to have settled on “menta” (mint).We took a rather long stroll to Punta Tragada along a pedestrian road that is more a promenade lined with beautiful villas. There was a profusion of bougainvillea clinging ancient stone walls and elaborate gates, allowing us to peek at with  envy the opulent homes  and manicured lawns beyond, landscaped with  umbrella pines, ficus, date palms, geraniums, cacti, and impatiens.

 A non-Beach at Marina PIccolo

A non-Beach at Marina PIccolo

At Punta Tragada we found a “belvedere” providing a scenic overlook of the surrounding countryside and the sea.  Also located at this site is the apricot- hued Villa Tragada  (once a private villa, but now a hotel) seeming to hang over a cliff above the Adriatic. In this villa, General Eisenhower met with Winston Churchill in 1944 for a strategy session, when it served as an American HQ for a time during WWII. We walked back to the central piazza, retracing our steps. There was so much in bloom on Capri that we both were sneezing a bit at this point, but we think we may just have been allergic to the prices. We seem to be bleeding Euros here at an alarming rate so we stopped at the ATM for our daily transfusion of cash.  Even though we are staying at a moderately priced hotel (for Capri that is), we imagine we hear a giant sucking sound here that is made by foreigner’s money flooding into  the local economy.

Catching Up on Some Journal Entries - Terrace at Villa Krupp

Catching Up on Some Journal Entries – Terrace at Villa Krupp

We walked to the Piazza Umberto for salad and a slice of pizza and then back to the Villa Krupp. When I use the term “walking”, you might envision an easy stroll on a flat surface. This is definitely not the case.  I have concluded that in Capri, everything is uphill – both ways in most cases. We decided to spend the afternoon relaxing on the terrace at the Villa Krupp, overlooking the Giardino Agustino (Augustine Gardens) and the sea beyond, much as Herr Krupp himself must have done back in the day.

We did make one stop en route at Carthusia – a local perfume factory and sampled the scents that heavily emphasize lemon and lavender. They also have more manly scents that Gary was spritzed with, just like in the department stores here.  Legend has it than in 1380 the Carthusian Monastery , in preparation for a visit from Queen Giovanna, filled a number of vases with fresh flowers. They did not change the water for 3 days, at which time they discovered that the water was pleasantly scented and they made a habit of producing it. It did take some time for them to go commercial which happened in 1948 when the formulas were located and the Pope gave them permission to give it to a chemist. Now on this spot is the smallest perfume lab in the world.  We had dinner in town and went to bed early to catch the ferry to Naples the next day.

June 4, 2011

Dateline:  Rome, Italy

Latitude 41.87, Longitude 12.60

We took an early ferry to Naples, then a taxi to the train station to catch a train to Rome. We arrived in Rome at  noon and so we dropped our bags at the Hotel Villa del Parco an hopped on the #62 line for a last look at Rome. We decided to go piazza crawling to give Gary an opportunity to discover the ultimate osso buco. (Literal Italian translation is Bone Hole, which is what you find in flank steaks of veal and beef. I prefer other cuts of meat, but Gary thinks this

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

dish is sublime. Our first stop was the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon where we got a table in the shade to have some refreshments and people watch at a restaurant called Il Scusate Ritardo. We spent 33 Euros here (about $44.00) the Diet Coke price is about  $9.00 and beer is  $11.50 so the refreshment tab can mount quickly here, but after all I did get those 3 ice cubes in a glass for my Diet Coke. Anyway it provided an opportunity for some memorable people watching. In addition to the masses of tourists, this piazza is prime turf for knock-off purse salesmen. In fact, one of these entrepreneurs , who had an intriguing line of Louis Vuitton handbags (4 on each arm), we decided was  actually Michael Vick. He he had on the #7 Falcons jersey with the name Vick on the back and he also looked very much like him. And, we had seen him or a body double wearing this same outfit in Buenos Aires a few years ago. We decided that perhaps he was working here in his old jersey in the off season. He and his two sales associates vanished like smoke when the police on foot patrol strolled onto the piazza.

Our next stop was the Piazza de la Fiore where workers were just cleaning up from the big Saturday market. We perused all the menus on restaurants there and found only one offering Osso Buco, but it did not have a single customer, so we took this as a sign and moved on to the Piazza Navona and a much livelier scene. There we found both osso bucco and the Michael Vick impersonator still pedaling purses to this crowd – a true traveling salesman.

After dinner we had a leisurely stroll through the streets of Rome, enjoying our last night in Italy, finding ourselves in the Piazza Venezia at the end of the main street of Rome, the Via del Corso. There is a huge monument (even by Roman standards) to Victor Emmanuel build in 1911 out of white marble  which many Romans think is something of a sore thumb, an atrocity plunked down in the middle of Rome. Speaking of atrocities, this piazza, also the site of  the Pallazo Venezia – a 15th Century palace which was once  home to Mussolini and the site of many of his public rants.

We left Rome early the next morning, headed for home after a truly remarkable adventure filled each day with wonder and learning. The words of British author, Douglas Adams, may have expressed it best: “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”